“My name’s Christopher Nicholls, I’m originally from the south of England but I’ve been living in Japan for over 10 years. I’m currently working as an independent director and cinematographer in Tokyo.”
Originally, you’re from the U.K. Can you tell us about your journey as a young British artist and moving to Japan?
I wouldn’t have called myself an artist of any kind back when I lived in the UK, just a kid who craved escapism and enjoyed imagination, probably more than real life at times. I wasn’t the academic type at school, I couldn’t sit down and learn from a book if you held a gun to my head, and I grew up raised by a working-class single mother, so didn’t have a lot of options when it came to higher education, to be honest. About 3 days before the university application deadlines, just as I was about to give up and go work with my friend on a building site, I found a course at a pretty low-end university studying BSc Film and Video Technology. I had no idea what it would entail, but going to university was kind of what was expected of people at the time, and I’d always had a love of film, so that’s what I did. I ended up studying a couple of really interesting filmmaking units but mostly studied old outdated and irrelevant technologies like two-machine tape to tape editing, the only things my university could acquire.
After graduating in 2005 I had a mountain of student debt and was desperately looking for jobs in the film industry, but every interview I went to wanted a ton of experience in some field that I basically had no experience in. I don’t come from a wealthy background so basically, it was a choice of giving up on the dream and finding any old job, being homeless, or moving back in with my Ma. The latter two weren’t an option really, so I ended up working in a call centre at American Express in Brighton in the south of the UK.
Cut to 5 years later and I’ve somehow worked my way up to a project management position, from a job I never wanted in the first place. Fortunately, because of the work, I was able to pay off some student debts and obtain a level of economic freedom that at the time of graduation felt impossible. In a moment of clarity, sitting on a train to some dull suburb of Brighton on my way to attend a meeting I had no passion for, I realized I wasn’t financially trapped anymore and didn’t have to do this job that meant nothing to me. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, my dream of being a filmmaker had kind of faded away, but I think I realized I needed some space from everything and I decided I wanted to leave the UK. I found this teaching programme called JET online and applied it on a whim thinking that teaching English abroad is an easy way to see the world. I got an interview, ended up getting the job, and they flew me to Sendai in Tohoku and suddenly I lived in Japan and was working in a bunch of public schools across the Taihaku area in the south of the city. This was back in 2010.
Would you say that there was a turning point in your creative career when things truly started to shape up your vision? If yes, when was it? Or would you describe it all more like a journey?
Definitely more of a journey, and I’m still on it now, but there were some points that you could say were big forks in the road I think. Moving to Japan was certainly a huge turning point as I was able to completely press reset on my life. I think we all have so many cultural and societal factors existing invisibly around us, and they go a long way to shaping who we are and how we interact with the world. When you move to a new country and don’t know a single person, you suddenly have this freedom and perspective to question who you are and who you want to be. All of a sudden I found myself surrounded by a completely alien culture in Japan, and also English speakers from all over the world, so I really think I was able to learn a lot from the whole experience as I absorbed so many new cultures and opinions. Six months after arriving in Sendai the big earthquake and tsunami hit, and to be honest that was another turning point. It gave me perspective on how small we all are, how fragile all this is, how it can all be washed away in a second. It’s a bittersweet learning experience, but it did make me understand that living a fulfilling life, whatever that means to each of us, is the most important thing we can strive for. I also met a lot of incredible people, and really saw the fortitude of the human spirit. I grew a lot during that time.
Working with kids was amazing, I kind of think everyone should try it for a while really. You learn a lot about people if you spend time with humans during their formative years, and you can learn a lot about Japan if you’re embedded in the community in the way that English teachers are. But, whilst my job was fun, it wasn’t something I could see myself doing forever. The JET Programme has a 5-year limit, and the glass ceilings of being a gaijin in Japan meant it wasn’t really something that could do as a career even if I wanted to. I realized that the job itself gave me a lot of free time and what a unique opportunity that was though. At work during free periods, I taught myself Japanese to a pretty decent level. After the disaster, I’d do all sorts of volunteer activities, working with NGOs, NPOs, individuals etc, work which I ended up doing the full 5 years I was there. That was one of the reasons I stayed for so long actually. Those activities and interactions really made me grow as a person.
The disaster was also inadvertently a driving factor in my decision to make films again. All of a sudden the media of the world was looking at this little region of Japan I was living in, but all they focused on were disaster-related stories. After a while, life was beginning to return to some semblance of normal, but all you’d hear was still stories related to the disaster. It kind of made me angry because there was so much more to the Tohoku that I was experiencing. All these amazing people, places, traditions and cultures, no one was telling these stories. All the media wanted to talk about was earthquakes and radiation and death and disaster. It made me really sad but then I realized, if I want to hear a different narrative, why can’t I be telling these stories. I bought a little DSLR camera and at weekends would strap all this cheap gear I’d found online to my little 50cc Honda Cub and would ride out to interesting places I’d found on my travels. I’d blag my way into people’s lives and shoot short documentary films about them, then I’d sit in empty classrooms at school during free periods and edit them. A couple of the films still sit online somewhere.
Actually, one of the short documentaries I made back then was seen by someone at a university in Tohoku and they reached out to ask if I could shoot their next promo video because they were impressed with the quality, especially as an independent film. That lead to my first ever paid gig. With the proceeds, I bought a better camera, and it’s fair to say it’s been snowballing from there ever since.
Do you have any inspirations when it comes to photography, videography, or directing? Who or what are they?
I think everyone is inspired by everything they’re exposed to, from film to music to friends to the experiences we have in life, so it’s hard for me to point out any specific filmmakers, for example, as being of particular inspiration to me because honestly there are so many. I don’t know if I have a particular visual style, I think that’s a decision audiences would make upon seeing my work, but I do try and maintain a feeling of what I guess you’d call sensitivity in my personal work. I’m not a hugely bombastic or “hype” kind of filmmaker, I don’t have anything against that type of thing, it’s just not in my personality so I don’t think it reflects in my work.
So you were the director of the Netflix Documentary ‘Zulu Man in Japan’. Can you tell us a bit about how that came to be? What was it like? Did working with Netflix open new doors to you?
That actually came to me through my connection to Red Bull Media as they helped facilitate the shoot via Red Bull South Africa. They introduced me and we filmed the whole thing totally run-and-gun with no idea how the final film would look or even where it would be shown. I’ve always loved hip hop, the first album I ever owned was The Predator by Ice Cube back in 1992 (what my mum must have thought to hear that blasting from the bedroom of her 9-year-old son), so it was really cool to finally work on something in the rap and hip hop world. I hadn’t heard of Nasty C at the time of the shooting, but once we filmed the scene in the studio, where him and JP The Wavy wrote a bunch of tracks completely on the fly, I realized he was the real deal. That man can seriously spit, and his brain just thinks in bars. It was so dope seeing it happen in person and they did a great job with the edit.
The Netflix connection came later after they’d made the final film and were able to sell it. They were back in SA by then so I wasn’t involved in the process and I literally found it on Netflix while browsing one day, which was amazing.
It got released in 2020 so the pandemic probably shuttered any immediate connections or doors it might have opened, but it’s up there now so who knows what the future holds.
What is your general creative process? Do you have any rituals of sorts or motions you go through?
It really depends on what I’m shooting, to be honest. If it’s a documentary, or ostensibly a documentary (for a brand for example) I don’t like to plan the content too much because then I feel like it’s me shaping what’s happening and I’m not representing the truth of the situation. To me, truth should be, as much as is realistically possible, the guiding principle of documentary filmmaking. Naturally, I may have an angle or area I want to pursue, but I think it’s important to let the subject reveal itself as naturally as possible as you seek your story.
If it’s a music video or something in collaboration with another artist I like to work closely with them to understand who they are and what their art means to them, again with a view to being as true to them as I can whilst creating something I can artistically stand behind. I guess I kind of see that sort of work as a vessel to present and explore other artists.
Rituals-wise, I don’t think I have any but when I’m setting up I try to always be as methodical as I can because I need to be able to rely on my equipment.
Now, tell us about your favourite gig. What would be your dream job or a dream collaboration?
My favourite gig was probably the short nihonshu documentary series I made. It was for a start-up so they didn’t have a huge budget or anything, but that meant they gave me total creative freedom. I put together a team of really talented friends and we travelled from south to north Japan filming at these really unique and beautiful nihonshu breweries. The whole week was just such an amazing mix of creativity and having a laugh with friends. It was one of those moments that made me really appreciate how lucky I am to do what I do.
My dream job would probably be a short film with a healthy budget, something where I can really push myself creatively and discover my voice as an artist and present my thoughts to the world.
What’s next for you?
I really want to try and make a short narrative piece within the next year. Something rooted in my personal experiences, where I can really test myself and see what I can do and what I want to say. The narrative is something I’m yet to do so it feels like the next natural step.
Finally, what advice would you give a person in a similar situation as you were 5 years ago?
Put yourself out there and meet as many people as you can. Be adventurous. Grow a thick skin. Always be kind. Mainly I think you should find worth in whatever you’re doing at the time, even if it feels a million miles from your eventual goals. With the right attitude, you can learn something from any experience, and that’s the foundation of personal growth.